I imagine at one point or another, most of us have been perusing Amazon or walking into some media store, noticed a sale for the entire collection of some random television show, and thought, ‘I’ve never watched a single episode of MacGyver, why don’t I watch every single one?!’
That was more or less my first interaction with burlesque some years ago. I understood that it involved mostly women and some men dancing and undressing, and I knew that it wasn’t like what goes on at strip clubs or what occurred in that awful Christina Aguilera/Cher movie.
Basically I knew nothing, but a four-day international burlesque festival was taking place in Toronto. And so I immersed myself in glitter, gloves, stripteases, sequins, outrageous costumes, and plenty of personalities. It was pretty hard not to quickly subscribe to the creativity, passion, sensuality, humor, and entertainment that came with this artistic subculture. This is what I came to learn.
There is much more going on than just someone undressing. There are costumes. There are themes. There is a choice of music and look and feel, and ultimately it is a stage show. What’s more than simply just being creative is that it is entirely one person’s vision; perhaps constrained only by limits of practicality (money, fire codes, et cetera), each show is a unique expression of one person’s curiosity. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s likely to hit certain people more than others, as art tends to do. Nonetheless, it’s a singular creative expression.
There Is A Plan
Each act has more or less some requirements, and it’s not even getting undressed – though that helps. Burlesque at its core is about the reveal, the tease; about creatively shedding layers to reveal oneself. There is a costume, there is something underneath (tassels, pasties, sequins, and the like), and there is a performance to music that sets up the striptease. It’s rarely about the end, either. Like any good piece of storytelling, the most interesting part of the act is not the conclusion, but how you arrive there.
The goal is to entertain and tantalize; to at one point or another make the audience feel something. Behind the art, though, is a culture of creatives who embrace body positivity, sexual and artistic expression, and lots of love. The prevailing notion is to celebrate art, beauty, and sexuality, and those performances can come in a variety of ways. They’re not focused on what the performer looks like, but rather their attitude and aim – the character they’ve created and the story they wish to tell. Sure, some acts may be simple and sexual, but others can be powerfully intimate, wildly humorous, or even frighteningly bizarre.
Anyone is invited to participate, provided you apply the effort. Women and men of all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages are burlesque performers. Like any creative endeavor, a fair number practice part time as a hobby, paying their own ways to create such performances and balancing out a full-time job (a so-called ‘muggle’ existence) with something far different. Of course, while things are inclusive within the burlesque community (though attitudes clash, to be sure), the outside world is less so. Often performers separate their stage lives with a more conventional existence, using their performer names within some circles and real names within others. Some are more open, but some are rightfully reserved, fearful of the unfair judgment that comes with the narrow-minded among us casting aspersions.
The beautiful thing about burlesque is that it can be a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and the ways in which one creates a show can deviate wildly. Maybe it’s about being sexy and sultry; maybe it’s about being absurd and fantastic. It’s also melancholic, jubilant, reflective, or just completely weird. I’ve literally seen milk spilled, sparks fly, and a man peel himself out of a giant banana. Put simply, burlesque requires performers to take the stage for a few minutes and perform; the music, the costumes, the props, the reveal, and the attitude are all up to them.